The Republican National Committee honored a trio of "trailblazers" at a Black History Month event in Washington on Tuesday, marking the GOP's latest stab at bolstering its national image among minorities in the run-up to the 2014 and 2016 elections.
The RNC emerged from the disappointing 2012 election convinced that the party's hopes of winning back the Senate and the White House hinge on its ability to win over more black, Hispanic and female voters.
That served as a backdrop to the second annual "Black Republican Trailblazer Awards" luncheon at the historic Howard Theater, where the party honored Ohio Supreme Court Judge Sara J. Harper; Bill Brooks, former assistant secretary at the Labor Department; and Louis W. Sullivan, a former secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.
"We can't grow a party by subtracting and dividing, we can only grow by adding and multiplying," RNC chairman Reince Priebus told the predominately black crowd, which included some members of the Washington Redskins and former Florida Rep. Allen West.
The event came on the heels of the RNC's announcement earlier this week that, for the first time in its history, it was bankrolling newspaper and radio ads celebrating Black History Month.
Mr. Brooks said the nation must strive to improve inner-city schools and to ensure the federal welfare system does not punish those who want to work and save so they can live independent of government, saying that "economic power is the new civil rights frontier."
"If African Americans are ever to secure a full measure of freedom and independence in this country, they must not only be employees, they must become employers," he said. "They must not only collect paychecks, they must issue paychecks."
Kiara Pesante, director of African American media at the Democratic National Committee, said that the Republican outreach efforts "ring hollow" when stacked up against GOP voting records.
"Their party has continually opposed policies that give all communities a fair shake and allows everyone's voice to be heard," Ms. Pesante said. "While Democrats will continue to work with communities of color to make sure no one is left behind, no number of events or amount of ad buys will mask the out-of-touch Republican agenda that has made it harder for many working Americans."
The 2012 presidential election served as a gut check for Republicans. Exit polls showed that Gov. Mitt Romney won 6 percent of the black vote nationwide, and the RNC said in its post-election report — called the Growth and Opportunity Project — that in order to grow as a part it needed to reach beyond its mostly white base.
"We are never going to win over voters who are not asked for their support," the report said. "Too many African American voters have gotten in the habit of supporting Democrats without hearing anyone in their community making a case to the contrary."
The outreach to the black community picked up speed Monday when the RNC announced it was running 30-second radio spots featuring past and present black "trailblazers" in Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Cleveland and Detroit. Some ads are also running in the Washington Informer — a weekly serving the city's black community.
The ads will feature the three people honored Tuesday as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Mia Love, former mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, who narrowly lost her bid for a seat in Congress in 2012.
The outreach effort started last year when Mr. Preibus traveled to Michigan to meet with black business and community leaders in Detroit, where announced the hiring of a new state director of African-American engagement and launched the Michigan Black Advisory Council.
Mr. Preibus also traveled to New Orleans to promote Louisiana's state's school choice programs, which he said Tuesday amount to "equal opportunity in action."
"School choice empowers kids who otherwise wouldn't have a shot at going to a good school," he said. "And as a party, we need to fight to extend programs like that."
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